November 1, 2013

Tell a Story. Be Yourself. Take Risks. The Culinary Business.

Invest in a restaurant.  Write your first cookbook.  Develop a line of vegetable based candy.  Are these things you’ve considered but never actually had the guts to go out and try?  Seems pretty daunting, especially when there are thousands of award-winning chefs, mixologists and home cooks trying to do the exact same thing. I won’t say I will never do any of these, but I will admit the thought of embarking on one of these journeys is quite discouraging.  At this year’s New York City Wine and Food Festival I had the opportunity to sit in on a discussion with some of the most notable culinary authorities in today’s world, in a seminar called “Pitch me”.   The name says it all.  How do you go about pitching your idea to culinary decisions makers? And then how can you make a profit doing it?

Tyler Florence, Luke Ostrom, Ben Kaufman (Quirky) Steve Dolinsky (ABC 7 NEWS) Rachael Ray, Bob Tuschman (Food Network)

In this business focused food seminar, culinary experts from the television, publishing, marketing and retail worlds provided insights on how you can turn your passion and ideas for food into a successful career.  After two days of non-stop eating at various tasting events, I was happy to sit in a comfy theater and give my stomach a moment to rest.

Rachel Ray and Tyler Florence kicked off the seminar by sharing their experiences growing up in the food industry.  Both hard work and luck played a bog role in both of their careers.  While their stories of entering into the business were drastically different, their underlying theme was exactly the same.  Tell a story.  It’s that simple.

“You need to tell a story around your food and your products… It’s what helps people connect to you and what you’re selling,” claimed Rachel.  “Brands that grow are the ones that have a story behind it, it’s what makes it genuine.”

After much success and failure in Tyler’s 15-year career, he finally settled on a passion of his own, bringing wholesome, organic baby food products that tasted like no others to the market. Becoming a father changed his life in many ways and set him on a new course within the food world.  Tyler shared that “Sprout Baby Food is the result of many years of research, development and most importantly, fatherhood.  It’s something I really felt passionate about, and I wanted to bring something to the market that moms and dads would feel good about feeding their kids.”  It wasn’t just the product itself that made it a success; it was Tyler’s determination to develop something he felt truly passionate about.  Let’s be honest, you could put Tyler’s name on any generic pot or pan in Macy’s and it would immediately fly off the shelves.  But that isn’t what he did; he genuinely believes in what he’s selling and that comes through to consumers.

Similarly, what makes Rachel Ray successful isn’t just her warm, vibrant personality; it’s her ability to put her personal touch on products she puts in the market. Rachel is adamant about making every product she puts into the market something that solves a problem in the kitchen and is both affordable and accessible.  When asked about her product line, Rachel stated, “I developed an oval-shaped spaghetti pot because spaghetti is long.”

A huge influence in both Rachel and Tyler’s career is the well-known face on The Next Food Network Star, Bob Tuschman.  Bob has spent the past 15 years cultivating fresh culinary talent and overseeing the development, programming, production and scheduling for Food Network and Cooking Channel cable TV networks.  He offered some great advice to those who want to get in the television business, and surprisingly it has little to do with television.  His tip: make a brand for yourself, because TV will only take you so far. TV is great for exposure, but after that you need a lot more to rest your name on.

So, are you sitting there sketching out your idea for the next hit TV show, an innovative kitchen gadget, or a new headphone case (please, someone help me here, I spend far too much of my time untangling my ear buds)!  I’ll admit I was doing the same thing half way through the forum.  Well… I have good news; keep those ideas coming because the opportunity to turn that product into a reality isn’t that far out of reach.  Let me introduce you to Ben Kaufman, the 24-year-old founder and CEO of Quirky, a social product development site that’s built on a collaborative decision-making platform.  Ben believes that, “The best ideas in the world aren’t actually in the world… they’re locked inside people’s heads. Quirky exists to solve that problem.”  Quirky helps consumers bring their new product designs to the marketplace through interaction between the online global community and Quirky’s product design staff.  “Any of Quirky’s community members can become an inventor or influencer by submitting ideas and helping to decide which products Quirky will design, manufacture, and sell. Inventors who submit ideas that are then created, and influencers who contribute to those ideas, share in royalties based on product sales,” states Ben.  It’s a true collaboration between those that have the ideas and the people that can make it happen, and Quirky brings this to your fingertips.  No need to search for that perfect business investor or financial backer, you can simply hop online and make it happen on your own.  You probably want to know what the secret is to developing the next new product… well, if I knew that I would have invested it by now.  But I challenge you to submit your own designs… who knows what’s possible?

To round off the line up of incredible talent, Luke Ostrom weighed in on the opportunities and challenges of being a restaurateur in one of the most competitive cities in the world.  As the owner and operator of The Dutch and Locanda Verde in Manhattan, Ostrom, chef-turned-restaurateur, presides over two of the city’s hottest spots.  Ostrom’s most important piece of advice – CARE.  Care about everything.  Care about all the small details you don’t think matter, because when you add it all up it creates a very specific experience.  He also warns that opening a restaurant is expensive.  “Don’t think you’re going to make a profit in the first year, or even in the first 10,” stated Ostrom.  It’s an investment, but if you have the right partners and a strong idea anything is possible.  Good luck to all you budding restaurateurs, I’ll come visit when you open!

October 30, 2013

Burger Bash NYCWFF 2013

A juicy, medium rare Pat LeFrieda blend burger with caramelized onions, toasted sourdough bread, and finished with a creamy béchamel and emmental cheese.  This was both my first and last taste at this years Burger Bash, and it wasn’t because it was the only burger I tried.  As I maneuvered my way from station to station I took in the view of the Hudson River and New York’s Upper West side.  Pier 92 was a stunning location to house some of the country’s best chef’s burger creations.  About half way through the event I think I went through a burger haze/coma, but it didn’t stop me from making the necessary rounds.

I’ve always enjoyed a very traditional burger.  Load it up with garden fresh tomato, crisp greens and a healthy spread of ketchup and I’m in burger heaven.  I can see the BBQ heating up by the lawn while my dad blares Annie Lenox out of the loud-speaker and maneuvers his way around the pool in an awkward, dance like fashion.  Warm days of summer are crowded with memories of long  days swimming and tennis followed by evenings by the pool chowing down on burgers and homemade fries.  Harold Moore, chef and owner of Commerce Restaurant in New York City’s Greenwich Village, captured these summer moments with his American burger.  To me, a traditional American burger is all about the meat, and the toppings are merely there for decoration.  Tasty decoration, but decoration nonetheless.  If the meat isn’t good then forget the rest of it, you can add as much bacon as you like it’s not going to help.  Harold didn’t mess with tradition; he delivered a perfect burger, grilled to a moist medium rare with fresh toppings found at your local farmers market.  On first glace you might pass this one up – but let me remind you that the classics and still around for a reason.

Next on my hit list was Ai Firoi’s White Label burger by PJ Calapa.  Fresh, spicy pickles, American cheese and bacon marmalade with a side of crispy cacio e pepe tater tots. The bacon marmalade added a delicate smokiness and hint of sweetness, while the pickles added tang and freshness.  Let’s just say I was sold at bacon marmalade and I also have a soft spot for tater tots… I may be guilty of still making them on Saturday mornings when no ones home and inevitably end up being both my breakfast and lunch.

Burger Bash Ai Fiori White Label burger

My second helping of tater tots came courtesy of Cast Iron’s executive chef Franklin Becker.  Before I tell you what’s in this burger, I must ask that you try to hold off judgment.  Don’t immediately dismiss this… are you ready?  Cheeze whiz.  Yes, I said it, cheese whiz.  But this is not your grocery store, neon-yellow cheese pump you had in your college dorm.  This is cheese whiz on CRACK.  Joe Wildmer’s Wisco cheese whiz burger with jalapeño pickles, Nueske bacon and special sauce was a balanced combination of charred beef, buttery cheese and smoky bacon.  If that wasn’t enough, the tater tots were also lucky enough to get a stream of melty goodness.  I never thought I would crave cheese whiz in my adult years but this burger took it to a whole other level, thank you Chef Becker.

Burger Bash Cast Iron The Wisco Bacon Burger

My next victim was a creation from Shane Lyons, executive chef at Distilled, who opted for poblano relish and crispy fried onions on his beef burger.  Fried onions you say? Sign me up! Lyons was able to create a seamless combination of heat and charred beefy flavor; the sour, brine of the pickle cut the richness of the burger and offered up a “healthy snack” among all the French fries and potato chips.  In case the burger wasn’t enough, it was topped with a crispy tater tot rectangle.  I was beginning to see a trend with tater tots, not just your average Sonic version (while I do love those too) but unique versions with truffle oil, sweet potato, corn and cheese toppings.

Burger Bash Distilled Burger 2

But the highlight of the night was the French Onion Soup Burger concepted and presented by Le Rivage’s executive chef and owner, Paul Denamiel.  I have a warm space in my heart for creamy, rich French onion soup – its transcendent aroma engulfs you as you dive into the deeply dark and flavorful broth. Toasted baguette and bubbly cheese on top of the caramelized onions are the ultimate in flavor. While I never imagined it would translate into anything more that a beautiful soup, Chef Paul was able to bridge two seemly unconnected dishes into something extremely unique.  The sweet caramelized onion flavor perfumed the burger, while the toasted English muffin offered a contrasting, chewy texture.  I couldn’t get enough, which is why I ended up having three servings throughout the night.  Le Rivage’s burger took home the Judge’s choice award for best burger, a clear winner against some very honorable competitors.

French Onion Soup Burger concepted and presented by Le Rivage’s executive chef and owner, Paul Denamiel

A week later I’m still in recovery mode.  It was an unforgettable night with great food and even better company.  With over 30 outstanding burgers on the menu I’m looking forward to next years Burger Bash.  Who’s coming with me?

October 15, 2013

Warm Brussels Sprouts Salad

The way I get myself over the loss of something… in this case, the warm, comforting embrace of Summer… is to consider what I am looking forward to next.  Chilly days and cozy nights, pumpkins and squash, and the beautiful deep colors of the falling leaves that are echoed in the change in my wardrobe.  Lush sweaters, leather jackets, textured cords, hats, knits, scarfs and my favorite of all, boots!!   You never see me procrastinating to pull out the sweaters or prepare the house for fall.  The time for reflecting on the year and gearing up for a strong finish does not escape me.

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On a cool Thursday night, after weighing our dining options, my mom and I slide into one of the wooden banquettes of the local Italian eatery Pizza Antica.  A generous bowl of warm, salted focaccia with rich olive oil is set on our table as we relax into our booth and peruse the menu.  When I came across the warm Brussels sprout salad I didn’t need to keep reading. With the onset of cool, autumn weather brings us Brussels sprouts at the peak of their growing season.  By the end of summer I’m anxious to dig into fall’s harvest and at farmer’s markets the landscape shifts to display a new array of deep reds, yellows and creamy whites. Gone are the strawberries, corn and stone fruits of summer; in their place, root vegetables, squash and cold-weather tree fruit emerge. It’s an exciting time of transition, and also a delicious one.

This salad is a celebration of fall and combines all that is good in the world – bacon, Brussels spouts, garlic and homemade croutons for a variety of flavors and textures.  The nutty flavor of the pan-fried sprouts is complemented beautifully by the smoky bacon, creamy egg and chew of the toasted bread.  Everything is brought together with a light, garlic vinaigrette which compliments the tender sprouts without overwhelming the dish.  This recipe was inspired by Pizza Antica, and I encourage you to adapt it as you go.  Sometimes I throw in some toasted almonds for crunch or top it with finely grated Parmesan cheese.

Ingredients

Warm Brussels Sprouts Salad

  • 1/2 slab bacon (9 slices of pre-cut bacon)
  • 4 tbsp. extra light extra virgin olive oil, plus 2 tbsp. for croutons
  • 2 medium onions, peeled and sliced
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 6 slices sourdough bread, cut into 1/2″ squares
  • 6 large eggs
  • 2 lbs. Brussels sprouts
  • Sea salt, to taste
  • Freshly ground pepper, to taste

Vinaigrette

  • 1 large garlic clove, minced
  • 1 large shallot, minced
  • 1 tsp. fresh thyme leaves
  • 3 tbsp. red wine vinegar
  • 1/2 cup extra light extra virgin olive oil
  • Sea salt, to taste
  • Freshly ground pepper, to taste

Method:

  1. First we’ll make the vinaigrette and set it aside for later.  To make the vinaigrette, soak the garlic, shallots, and thyme in vinegar for roughly 45 minutes.
  2. After soaking, slowly whisk in the oil. Season to taste with salt and pepper and reserve covered.
  3. Preheat oven to 300°F for the croutons.
  4. Toss cubed bread with light extra-virgin olive oil and toast in the oven for 20-25 mins until golden brown and crispy.  Allow to cool to room temperature and set aside.
  5. Cut bacon into 1/2″ squares and cook over low to medium heat until almost crisp; drain off the fat and set aside.
  6. In the same pan you cooked the bacon, heat 2 tbsp. light extra-virgin olive oil.  If you have some remaining bacon fat leave it in the pan and just add any extra oil as needed.  The extra light olive oil has a higher smoking point so if you don’t have it, replace it with canola oil.
  7. Sauté sliced onions over medium-high heat until golden brown, two minutes before you remove it from the heat add the garlic; drain and set aside.
  8. In a small saucepan, cover the eggs with cold water and bring to a low boil.  Once boiling remove from heat and cover.  Let the eggs stand in hot water for 8-9 minutes.  Then run cold water over eggs to stop the cooking – this will give you hard-boiled eggs with a firm yolk.
  9. Peel eggs and dice finely (about the size of a small pea) and reserve covered in the refrigerator.
  10. Clean the sprouts by removing the first few dark leaves and discarding. Cut off the stem, and separate the leaves one by one. When you get to the light green center and can’t pull off the leaves, either slice the heart very thin or reserve for other uses.  Peeling the leaves is definitely the best way to make this salad, but if you are short on time you can also shred them in a Cuisinart.  It will save you at least 30 mins but you won’t get the same texture.
  11. In a large sauté pan, heat remaining extra-virgin olive oil until almost smoking and add sprouts leaves; toss until wilted (about 3 minutes), season with salt and pepper.
  12. Add reserved onions and bacon and warm until hot.
  13. When hot, add vinaigrette and toss to distribute evenly.
  14. Add croutons and chopped eggs and toss to incorporate.
  15. Serve!

Recipe sourced from http://www.pizzaantica.com/

 

October 5, 2013

Grains of Paradise and Cayenne Oatmeal Cookies

Living in Houston I’ve learned that Texans LOVE spicy, hot food.  They serve everything with a side of Tabasco or hot salsa that makes your forehead sweat, and it’s already hot enough without the spicy food.  Eggs, steak, salads, burgers… everything is bursting with heat.  I spent my first few months in Houston downing gallons of milk every time I attempted to conquer the red salsa at our local Mexican restaurant.  Sadly, I never succeeded.  But in an effort to enbrace my new home I’ve tried to incorporate some spice into my classic recipes to satisfy my friends cravings.

Grains of Paradise and Cayenne Oatmeal Cookies

The thing I like about these cookies is that they don’t immediately smack you in the face with heat, it gradually hits at the end and lingers ever so slightly.  I didn’t want to mess with a classic too much, but I do think this takes a traditional oatmeal cookie to a more grown up level.  The cranberries add to the chewy texture of the oats and give it an added sweetness needed with the earthy spices. I purposely left out cinnamon, usually a staple in oatmeal cookies, as I didn’t want it to mask the other spices. 

The secret ingredient in these cookies is grains of paradise, a spice native to West Africa. I crushed the grains with my mortar and pestle which released the most heavenly aroma — a combination of black pepper, cardamom, coriander and citrus with a lingering scent of something floral and woodsy.  If you crack one between your teeth, the flavor follows in much the same order as the aroma.  If you only get one thing from this recipe I hope it’s an introduction to this wonderful spice.  The floral, peppery flavor is going to make a wonderful addition to just about all your favorite foods.  Your grilled steaks, fish, vegetables and potatoes will thank you.

If you’re looking for something a little more special, pop two cookies in the oven at 350 for a few minutes and add a scoop of vanilla ice cream and you have a perfect ice cream sandwich. 

Ingredients

  • 1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 1/2 cup granulated sugar
  • 3/4 cup light brown sugar, packed
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 tsp. vanilla
  • 1/2 tsp. freshly ground nutmeg
  • 1 tsp. cayenne pepper (more if you are adventurous)
  • 1 tsp. grains of paradise
  • 1 tsp.  baking soda
  • 1/2 cup toasted pecans, chopped and toasted
  • 1/2 cup dried cranberries
  • 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 3 cups traditional Quaker Oats (not quick cook)

Method

  1. Preheat the oven to 325°F
  2. Position racks in the upper and lower thirds of the oven. This helps the cookies crisp by being closer to the heat source or at the very top where the heat accumulates.
  3. Place nuts in a small pan and toast on medium heat for 5-7 minutes.  As soon as they become fragrant take them off the heat and space them on the side to cool.
  4. In a medium bowl, mix together flour, baking soda, nutmeg, cayenne, grains of paradise and salt thoroughly and set aside.
  5. In a large bowl, beat butter, white and brown sugar, and vanilla until the mixture changes color and becomes a smooth, pale white… this is what you want so you have light, fluffy cookies.
  6. Slowly add the flour mixture and continue to stir with a wooden spoon until well incorporated.
  7. Add oats, pecans and cranberries and stir until mixed well.
  8. Scoop dough on to ungreased cookie sheets, I use a mini ice cream scoop to make it easier.  I also spray the spoon with pam so the dough doesn’t stick.
  9. Bake for 8-10 more minutes until the cookies are golden brown
  10. Let the cookies cool on pan for 1 minute before placing on wire rack.
  11. Enjoy!

 

September 30, 2013

Christina Tosi, Momofuko Milk Bar, New York NY

I slowly wake up to the sound of the pantry doors opening and closing and the clatter of breakfast bowls as the kitchen begins to come to life.  The warm light peeking out over Mt Diablo gives just enough light to guide me as I scamper out of bed and head downstairs.  I slide my bar stool close to the counter so I can kneel on the seat and get a good view of our morning treats.  Ice cold milk, Honey Nut Cheerios and a topping of fresh banana for Dad. As I intensely study the puzzles on the back of the cereal box my Dad casually flips through the morning paper.

Cereal Milk Soft Serve

Cereal Milk Soft Serve

On a recent trip to New York I was instantly transported back to this sweet moment.  I place in time that I never thought could be replicated in my years as an adult.  Christina Tosi’s cereal milk soft serve with a delicately, crunchy corn flake topping instantly took me back to those mornings with my Dad.  What took me by surprise was Christina’s ability to conjure up such emotion, and bring back a past time that felt as if it had happened just yesterday.  Her ice cream confection reminded me of those mornings I shared with my Dad as picked up our bowls to savor the last drop of sugary milk at the bottom of our breakfast bowls.

The idea behind cereal milk is so obvious it make you want to smack yourself and go, duh, why didn’t I think of that.  When I met with Christina she explained her inspiration behind this dessert.

“I was in the grocery store going up and down the aisle looking for something to flavor my panna cotta.  I couldn’t just serve any old panna cotta, it has to be one that no one had tried before.  I was in the cereal aisle and thought… hm… this is either a really good idea or a really bad one. It’s either going to be really well received of they are going to be like, this is dumb,” she explained when she was asked to prepare a memorable dessert for Momofuko Milk Bar.  But once they tried her cereal milk panna cotta they knew Christina had stumbled on something extraordinary.

I was lucky to spend an evening at her warehouse in Williamsburg, Brooklyn where she greeted us with an energy and happiness that was intoxicating.  With her strawberry blonde hair pulled back with a cherry printed bandana, I felt like I had walked into a family owned farm kitchen in the Midwest.  After sampling her compost cookie, crack pie and famous cereal milk ice cream she shared her inspiration and love for baking.  For her, it’s not about recreating a classic, but constructing something new that draws on a memory or an emotion.

“Everyone has their relationship with chocolate chip cookies, they know what their favorite is, what they like in them, what they don’t like in them… there is this range.  So for me it’s about tapping into that feeling, flavor, emotion and nostalgia that makes you love your grandma’s chocolate chip cookie but sharing it in a new and exciting way that doesn’t compete with the original.”

Christina doesn’t take herself too seriously, she just wants to have fun and experiment in the kitchen and lucky for us her experiments more often than not turn out incredible.

Christina Tosi Momofuko Milk Bar Williamsburg, NY

Christina Tosi Momofuko Milk Bar Williamsburg, NY

July 22, 2013

Butternut Squash and Mushroom Lasagna

Pasta carbonara, pizza Margherita, and a fresh panzanella salad.  I love classic Italian dishes, but sometimes I like to experiment.  I had to make a vegetarian dish for a dinner with friends, so I thought it would be a perfect opportunity to take a new look at lasagna, traditionally interweaving layers of pasta, ricotta, ragù, béchamel, and Parmigiano-Reggiano.

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But let’s take a step back. Many of you might be remembering that dire lasagna from church potlucks – soggy pasta and waterlogged ground beef.  I recall separating the pasta and pulling out clumps of tacky ricotta, while trying to remove the cracked fluted edges of noodle from the top layer.  Please, try not to associate frozen lasagna with a freshly made version – it’s not even comparable.

The key to this lasagna is the pasta, which lends a wonderful texture and coarseness to the dish.  Its chewy, dense consistency reminds me of traditional Italian pastas, perfectly al dente with a slight bite.  What I love about this dish is it’s combination textures from creamy ricotta, silky butternut squash, and an earthiness from the crimini mushrooms.  The luscious combination of ingredients can stand up to one another, and among all the flavors I can still pick out subtle hints of nutty parmesan.

This recipe is inspired by one I found in an old copy of Bon Appétit.

Ingredients

  • 1/4 cup salted butter
  • 2 large onions, chopped
  • 5 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1/2 pound crimini (baby bella) mushrooms, diced (about 3 cups)
  • 2 pounds butternut squash, peeled, seeded, cut into 1/4-inch-thick slices (about 5 1/2 cups)
  • 1 14-ounce carton vegetable broth
  • 4 tablespoons fresh thyme, chopped and divided
  • 4 tablespoons fresh sage, sliced and divided
  • 3 15-ounce containers whole-milk ricotta cheese
  • 4 cups mozzarella cheese, grated and divided
  • 2 cups Parmigiano-Reggiano, grated and divided
  • 4 spring onions, finely chopped
  • 4 large eggs
  • Olive oil
  • Salt
  • Fresh ground pepper
  • 2 9-ounce package lasagna noodles.  (My favorite brand is Rustichella d’Abruzzo Lasagne all’uovo These noodles need to be boiled before being layered into your lasagna.  The original recipe calls for no cook noodles if you want to take out a step)

Method

  1. Melt butter into a large skillet over medium-high heat.  I recommend using a skillet with high sides so you can use one pan for all your steps – heads up you’ll need to simmer your squash and noodles in vegetable broth so pick a larger pan than you might think.
  2. Add onions and sauté until soft, about 8 minutes and season with salt and pepper.
  3. Add garlic and sauté for another 1-2 minutes.
  4. Increase heat to high; add mushrooms and cook until tender, stirring constantly, about 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper and then transfer the mushroom mixture to a bowl and set aside until you’re ready to assemble the pasta.
  5. In the same skillet, add squash, broth, 3 tablespoons thyme, and 3 tablespoons sage. Cover and simmer over medium heat until squash is just tender, about 6 minutes. Uncover and cook until squash is very soft but still retains shape, about 5 minutes.  Season with salt and pepper.
  6. Skim the squash from the skillet and set aside.  Don’t worry if it starts to fall apart a little, and discard the thyme and sage.  Keep any vegetable broth left over in the pan.
  7. Add 4 cups of water to the broth and bring to a low boil for your pasta sheets.
  8. While your broth comes to a boil, mix ricotta, 2 cups mozzarella cheese, 1 1/2 cups Parmesan cheese, spring onion, and remaining 1 tablespoon thyme and 1 tablespoon sage in large bowl.
  9. Mix in eggs and season to taste with salt and pepper.
  10. Once your broth is at a low boil, place pasta in broth and let simmer for 3 min.  Once slightly softened, you can turn off the heat and begin to assemble your lasagna.
  11. Brush 13x9x2-inch glass or ceramic baking dish with oil. Spread 1 cup ricotta mixture over bottom. Arrange 3 – 4 noodles on top (I usually cut a few so I can cover the entire dish). Spread 13/4 cups ricotta mixture over noodles. Arrange 1 1/3 cups squash mixture over. Sprinkle with 1/2 cup mushrooms and 1 cup mozzarella. Top with 3 noodles, then 1 3/4 cups ricotta mixture, half of remaining squash, 1/2 cup mushrooms, and remaining 1 cup mozzarella. Repeat with noodles, 1 3/4 cups ricotta mixture, remaining squash, and remaining mushrooms. Top with 3 noodles. Spread remaining ricotta mixture over; sprinkle with remaining Parmesan.
  12. Cover with oiled foil.
  13. Preheat oven to 350°F. Bake lasagna, covered, 35 minutes. Uncover; bake until heated through, about 25 minutes longer.
  14. Let stand 10 minutes before serving.
  15. Serve with a fresh arugula salad!
October 15, 2012

Rosemary Tomato Basil Soup

Tomato basil soup paired with a stringy mozzarella grilled cheese sandwich is a classic.  It’s been copied and modified a million times over and I still think the traditional rosemary scented soup and crunchy buttered sandwich makes any Tuesday night a little more special.

Soup should really be considered it’s own food group.  I pride myself in being the sole person to order a warm tortilla soup in the middle of Houston summer, or chilled cucumber-melon bisque when it’s 20 below.  (I happened to have both melon bisque and puréed corn chowder with chili oil at my wedding.)  There’s something about soup I find utterly addicting.  The combination of flavors, the variety of textures, and most importantly the crunchy garlic croutons, crispy bacon, or fresh herbs that get delicately placed on top and slowly sink into the silky, savory bisque.

The roasted, sweet tomatoes combined with the tangy bite of rosemary sourdough bread soothes the soul and takes the edge off a brisk day.  The bread gives this soup a thick texture with a mouthy richness I often find missing in perfectly velvety broths.  Aromatic sweet basil with hints of mint and pepper brighten the flavor and offer you a taste of summer just when you think fall has taken over.

Ingredients

  • 3-4 tablespoons good olive oil
  • 3 pounds ripe plum tomatoes, cut in half lengthwise
  • 2 cans stewed tomatoes, 28oz
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 yellow onion, chopped
  • 2 tbsp. salted butter
  • 1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 1 tbsp. freshly ground pepper
  • 1/2 tbsp. Italian seasoning
  • 4 large slices of sourdough rosemary bread
  • 3/4 cup light whipping cream
  • 3/4 cup milk
  • 1 cup fresh basil
  • Freshly sliced mozzarella cheese for topping
  • Basil for garnish

Method

  1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Toss together the tomatoes, 2 tbsp. olive oil, salt, and pepper. Spread the tomatoes in 1 layer on a baking sheet and roast for 45 minutes.
  2. In a heavy bottomed stockpot over medium heat, sauté the onions and garlic with 2 tablespoons of olive oil.
  3. Add butter and red pepper flakes and sauté for 10 minutes on medium heat.  Onions should become transparent but should not brown.
  4. Add stewed tomatoes, canned tomatoes (including juice), salt, pepper, and Italian seasoning in a large saucepan on medium heat.
  5. Bring to a simmer.
  6. Roughly tear the bread into smaller pieces and add to the pot.  I break up the bread so it’s easier to spoon out and purée.
  7. Next you’ll puree the soup in small batches, so I usually remove it from the heat and let it cool a little before I begin this process.  The soup should still have texture and not be completely smooth.  The soup will not be nearly as enjoyable if it’s perfectly silky in texture.
  8. Carefully puree, along with the basil leaves in small batches. You can use a blender, food processor, or better yet, one of those handy hand-held food blenders, right in the pot.  If you use a blender BE CAREFUL!  The heat will force the top off the blender and you’ll be cleaning soup off your ceiling for weeks, or you’ll burn your hands so just fill it up half way and pulse it gently.
  9. Return to saucepan and add cream and milk, while stirring, over low heat.
  10. Garnish with basil leaves, mozzarella cheese and serve with a warm slice of sourdough bread.

For a healthier version, leave out the butter and replace the cream with non-fat milk.  Enjoy!

October 10, 2012

Black Pepper Cranberry-Walnut Oatmeal Cookies

I have an influx of oatmeal in my pantry…  every time I go to the store I seem to think I’m out so I buy more.  And of course when I get home I realize I have pounds of it!  (I’ve had the same experience with foil and butter…. )  So I needed to find some ways to get through it apart from my morning breakfast.

Black pepper oatmeal cookies with cranberries and walnuts

Thankfully, oatmeal can be used for a variety of healthy and tasty treats… granola and cookies being two of my favorites.  The change of seasons also makes me warm up to those heartier breakfasts and the cold harsh winter in Houston.  OK, harsh is probably overdoing it but we did get snow my first winter in Houston!  After a few not-so-subtle hints from my husband I finally had a free evening to bake up some goodies.

Home-baked cookies seem to be the perfect vehicle for little warm nuggets of heavenly pecan, walnut and macadamia.  It’s the perfect amount of crunch to balance the chewy exterior, and helps level out the sugary sweetness of plain cookies.  These are buttery, chewy and indulgent, and the hints of black pepper and nutmeg give this traditional recipe an interesting twist.  The tart cranberries contrast well with the black pepper and allow both flavors to spark while not overpowering one another.  You’ll friends will know they’re different, but they won’t know why…

Ingredients

  • 3/4 cup butter, melted (1½ sticks)
  • 1 cup packed brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup white sugar
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp. fresh ground nutmeg
  • 1/2 tsp. ground cloves
  • 1 1/2 tsp. ground black pepper
  • 1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
  • 1 egg
  • 1 egg yolk
  • 1 1/2 cups traditional Quaker Oats (not quick cook)
  • 1/2 cup toasted chopped walnuts (or your favorite nut)
  • 1/2 cup dried cranberries

Method

  1. Remove butter from fridge and let warm to room temperature.
  2. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.
  3. Place chopped pecans on a baking sheet and toast in the oven for 8-10 mins.  When you kitchen smells like heaven they’re ready.
  4. Remove from oven and let cool on the side.
  5. Line cookie sheets with parchment paper. Your cookies turn out so much better with parchment paper. I don’t know why but it works and then there is less to clean up!
  6. In a separate bowl, mix flour, baking powder, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg, clove and black pepper; set aside.
  7. In a medium bowl, cream together the melted butter, brown sugar and white sugar until it becomes a light cream color and fluffy in texture.  The color should significantly change from when you start, so just turn up that mixer and let it go!
  8. Beat in the vanilla, egg, and egg yolk for 2-3 minutes until light and creamy.
  9. Mix in the flour mixture until just blended.
  10. Add the oats, walnuts and cranberries and mix with a wooden spoon. Mix until just blended.
  11. Use a tablespoon and scoop out small balls of dough onto parchment lined cookie sheet and bake for 13-15 minutes. Do not over bake. The edges should turn very light brown, which is sometimes hard to see in the oven light, so I think I over baked these the first few times I made them.  The centers should still be slightly soft.
  12. Let the cookies rest on the cookie sheet for a couple of minutes before transferring to a cooling rack (I usually try to eat one right off the tray and always burn myself… but it’s so worth it!
  13. Repeat and enjoy!
July 11, 2012

Capellini with Arrabbiata Sauce and Grilled Chicken Breast

I can’t bring myself to buy jarred pasta sauce when it takes less than 10 minutes to make it from scratch.  It just doesn’t compare to the bright flavors of freshly made pasta sauce – and it’s not just better tasting it also better for you.

The simplest, and most authentic marinara is a quick sauce, seasoned only with onion, garlic, pepper, and, if you like, basil or oregano. The pieces of tomato are left chunky, and the texture of the finished sauce is fairly loose.  It’s that easy. Toss with your favorite pasta and you’re weeknight meal is a quick trip to Italy!  Once you have this base, with just a few adjustments, you can make a range of sauces from a few simple ingredients.

Today we’re making Capellini with arrabiata sauce.  This dish’s name – arrabbiata – comes from the Italian word for “angry” because of the spicy tomato and red pepper.  The sweet tomatoes balance the heat from the peppers and will awaken any palate.  The salty, charred flavor from the grilled chicken offsets the heat and adds an element of texture to this luscious bowl of pasta.  No need for take out tonight, make a large bowl of pasta for your family and I promise you’ll go to bed with full bellies and a full wallet. 

Ingredients

  • 4 skinless boneless chicken breast
  • 1 packet Capellini pasta (angel hair)
  • 1 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 large onion, finely diced
  • 5 cloves garlic, finely diced
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 1/2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 can diced tomatoes, 8 oz.
  • 2 cans stewed tomatoes, 16 oz.
  • 2 tbsp. tomato paste
  • 1 tbsp. Italian Seasoning
  • 2 tbsp. red-hot chili pepper (use more or less depending on the level of heat desired)
  • 1/4 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
  • 1 tbsp. Fresh Italian parsley, roughly chopped
  • Handful of fresh basil, roughly chopped

Chicken seasoning

  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 1 tsp. Italian Seasoning
  • 1/2 tsp. ground black pepper
  • 1/2 tsp. garlic powder

Method

  1. Place large pot of water on stove to boil for the pasta.  Once it boils lower it to a simmer until everything else is ready.  The pasta only takes 4 minutes to cook so it’s the last thing you want to do, but you want to have the water ready to go.
  2. Place skillet on medium heat and add olive oil.
  3. Saute onion, garlic, salt and pepper for about 5 minutes.  You want the onions to turn opaque; you don’t want them to brown.
  4. Add diced tomatoes, stewed tomatoes and tomato paste.  Stir in Italian seasoning and red-hot chili peppers and return to a low simmer.
  5. Carefully spoon out about half the mixture and place it in a food processor.  You can also use a blender but be careful and hold the lid down tightly since the heat will want to push it up.
  6. Blend half the sauce and add it back into the skillet.  This will add richness to the sauce while still keeping some texture.
  7. Add Parmigiano-Reggiano and lower heat to low.  Now it’s chicken time!
  8. Turn grill on medium~high (350 degrees)
  9. Mix chicken spices in a small bowl and sprinkle on top and bottom of chicken breast
  10. Spray hot grill with PAM and place chicken over direct heat.
  11. Close lid and cook for approx. 6 minutes, then flip and cook another 6 minutes with the lid closed.  Chicken’s done at 165 deg. There is no rare or med rare for chicken. You have to cook it done every time! Try not to prick the breast much, it will make the juices run out and cause it to be dry.
  12. Remove chicken from grill and let it rest while you cook the pasta.  Don’t slice immediately; wait until you’re ready to serve.
  13. Return water to a boil, salt water (1 tbsp. salt) and add pasta.
  14. Stir well and let boil for 4 minutes.  Start the 4 minutes as soon as you drop in the pasta.
  15. While pasta cooks, add parsley and basil to the sauce.
  16. Drain well and reserve a cup of pasta water to add to the sauce.  This thin pasta is very delicate and will turn to mush if you over cook it.
  17. Add drained pasta directly into sauce and stir.  Add some of the pasta water if needed; it will help loosen the sauce if it gets too thick.
  18. Fill a large bowl with a healthy serving of pasta and top with sliced chicken breast.

Diverti!

April 9, 2012

Dry Rubbed Seared Salmon

It’s officially springtime, and with Easter passing I’m beginning to go through my lighter dishes to go with the change of seasons.  I get giddy thinking about fresh grilled corn on the cob, summer salads full of fresh veggies, pears, apples and toasted nuts, and most of all the selection of fresh fish in the local market.  One of my all time favorites is salmon, however, one badly cooked salmon can turn me off for months, so I have to choose wisely when I dine out.  The dry, chalky taste of overcooked salmon is one of the most devastating things you can be met with at the dinner table.  Similar to a burnt cookie, overcooked pasta, or a hockey puck steak, overcooked salmon is a major offense in my book.  But when it’s done well, you’ll want to have it every day of the week.  The beauty of salmon is that it can pick up a variety of flavors, teriyaki, garlic, white wine and butter, and its meaty texture lends itself to a variety of cooking methods.  I don’t recommend cooking Dover sole on the BBQ, but a salmon can stand up to this summer time classic.

The delicate crispy, golden crust that forms on the outside is a perfect contrast to the juicy, meaty flesh.  It’s a symbol of summer and health, and gets you on the track to looking stunning in your new summer swimsuit.

Perfect pan-seared salmon demands on a very hot pan. Use a heavy cast-iron skillet, which heats evenly. Warm the pan before you add the oil – either extra light virgin olive oil or vegetable oil; this trick allows the pan to get it really hot without burning the oil. A preheated pan also requires less oil.  Once you master this method you’ll be able to whip up a gourmet dinner in less than 10 minutes – golden brown outside and tender inside.   I like to serve salmon with a fresh mixed green salad with a tangy vinaigrette, a refreshing contrast to the rich, yet delicate fish.

Ingredients

  • 2 6 oz. salmon fillets (skin on) one per person
  • 1 tsp. garlic powder
  • 1 tsp. fresh thyme, finely chopped
  • 1 tsp. fresh rosemary, finely chopped
  • 1 tsp. sea salt
  • 1 tsp. freshly ground black pepper, coarse grind
  • 1 tsp. lemon pepper
  • 1 tsp. ground ginger
  • 1 tbsp. butter
  • 2 tbsp. extra light olive oil
  • 2 tsp. fresh parsley, finely chopped

Method

  1. In a small bowl, mix garlic powder, rosemary, thyme, seal, pepper, lemon pepper, and ginger.
  2. Brush the salmon with olive oil on all sides.
  3. Take the spice mixture and generously coat both sides of the salmon.
  4. Set a large cast-iron skillet over high heat. When a drop of water skitters on the surface, add the oil.
  5. Tilt the pan to coat the bottom evenly and heat until the oil is almost smoking, about 30 seconds.
  6. Place the salmon skin side up in the cast iron skillet.
  7. Cook until golden brown on the bottom, about 4 minutes.
  8. Turn the salmon and cook an additional 3 to 4 minutes on the other side.
  9. Then lower heat to medium, place lid over skillet to trap heat and finish cooking an additional 2-3 minutes.
  10. With a minute to go, add a tbsp. of butter and let is melt in the pan, spoon it over the top of the salmon right before you turn off the heat.
  11. To check if the salmon in ready, stick a thin knife in the thickest part and gently look at the color inside.  It should be juicy and barely turning opaque.  If you over cook the fish it will be extremely dry and very white in color.
  12. When salmon is cooked enough to eat safely it will lose its translucency and become opaque. It should also flake easily when tested with a fork.
  13. Serve with a fresh salad and enjoy your very healthy yet tasty dinner!

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